Luke 23:1-25, In the Shadow of the Cross

The Non-Trial

[March 15, 2009] In today’s reading we supposedly have a depiction of Jesus’ trial. People get the impression that the “Jews” forced Pilate to execute Jesus when Pilate was only trying to save him. This is completely false. The Roman governor was a powerful man, but according to Roman law, for him to take action against Jesus, he needed the formal initiative of a third party (delatio). In this case, the prosecutors were the high priest and his colleagues. However, when they failed to come up with any evidence for their charges, the governor turned the investigation (cognitio) into a circus. Three times he pronounced Jesus innocent, yet he executed him anyway.

If we consider the fact that the governor had loaned Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas, the use of the temple garrison to arrest Jesus, and the scene in Annas’ house when they desperately tried to find just two witnesses to agree on something criminal to charge Jesus with and their failure to do so, and the early morning rush to condemn Jesus, we are left concluding that Pilate had secretly ordered Jesus’ arrest because of what the city had witnessed on Palm Sunday, and that he wanted the priests to come up with the evidence on which to charge Him. When the next morning they failed to do so, Pilate still had Jesus executed but only after he made them appear to take all the blame. He follows the will of the mob, as if the trial was really a lynching. But of course, he ended up using his authority as governor to execute a man whom he had pronounced innocent. The whole thing was a rushed affair carried out before the populace could even know that Jesus had been arrested. Imagine such a scene in today’s court! The end of the matter was that Pilate used Jesus to set an example for anyone with aspirations of overthrowing or even competing with Roman authority.

Jesus Suffered Innocently

Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were written with the churches of the Roman Empire in mind and also those outside the church who might be interested in the church’s message. Six years after Jesus was crucified, Pilate used so much excessive force to suppress a rebellion in Samara that it came to the attention of the emperor and he was called to Rome to answer for it. He was tried and condemned, and committed suicide while in exile. Luke wrote his gospel well after both Pilate and Herod had died. He emphasized that Jesus was innocent and was only executed by the miscarriage of Roman justice on the part of a Roman governor, who was himself later condemned by the empire. If you were an early reader of the gospel, you would not have blamed Rome, or Rome’s system of government, or the Jewish people, but rather a governor who abused his power and the high priest and his inner circle (who were notoriously unpopular with the people).

The Apostles and Churches Likewise

In the Acts of the Apostles and the Apostolic Letters, the apostles and their coworkers and the churches themselves also suffered at the hands of the mob and the authorities and, like Jesus, they also are innocent of any wrongdoing against the government or the welfare of society. (This is not to say that civil-disobedience is always wrong. There are times when we can only do what is right by being civilly disobedient. One such time is when the government actively persecutes the church.) The example of Jesus shows the church that it can suffer persecution and actually be innocent. In Luke, Jesus is the pattern of the church. Peter shows this in his first epistle too.

The Pattern of Apostolic Ministry

Paul, in his letters, also portrays the ministry as “bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus.” He said, when he was in prison, that he himself was filling up on his part that which was lacking of the afflictions of Christ for the sake of the church (2 Corinthians 4:10; Colossians 1:24). He even said that it was his goal to be “conformed to [Christ’s] death” (Philippians 3:10), for it is only by death working in us (the apostolic worker) that we can enable the divine life to work in others (2 Corinthians 4:11-12). When we look at the Acts of the Apostles we see the pattern of the Gospel according to Luke impressed on the structure of the apostolate. There, the apostle who is most Christ-like ending as a Roman prisoner who, like Christ, is innocent of any criminal charges.

Suffering at the Hands of the World

N____ has responded to God’s call to become a coworker of the apostles. We certainly hope that prison does not await her. But there is no escaping the shadow of the cross. A worker for Christ suffers in the world because the world rejects Christ. We live in a society that is aggressively secular and that unwittingly but nevertheless compulsively worships its symbols. It cannot be but that both the church and the apostolic workers lie in the shadow of the cross and that the cross of Christ becomes our own pattern.

The Pattern of the Cross Is Also Inward

This suffering at the hands of the world is written across the history of the Gospel, but it is only the outward aspect. The pattern of the cross cuts down to the marrow.

The Christian Worker Is the Lord’s Prisoner—Condemned to Death

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul refers to himself, physically a prisoner of Rome in Caesarea, as a “prisoner of the Lord” (Ephesians 3:1). When we are captivated for the Lord’s work, we lose our freedom and become His prisoners. While no believer belongs any longer to her- or himself because they have been bought with the price of Christ’s blood, you—N____—have become His prisoner, awaiting the gallows.

Spiritual Value Issues from the Death of the Soul (the Self)

In order for the life of Christ to minister in others, we need to experience the death of our soul—our self (to be more precise, the God-independent identification of the self with the ideations and emotional constructs of the soul)—so that the phoenix of Christ can rise from its ashes. To work for Christ is spiritual work, always (Romans 1:9).

Dying to Self Does Not Precede the Lord’s Work But IS the Work

If Paul, who accomplished so much for the Lord, had to say, “Not that I have already obtained or am already matured” (Philippians 3:12; see 1 Corinthians 9:26-27), we are in no position to say that we have put this behind us. This dying to self is not the prerequisite for the Lord’s work; it is the process of the Lord’s work. The Lord’s work takes the form of the cross. It is done entirely in the shadow of the cross. We can learn whatever we can from the world, and we should try, but what is going to count as actual fruit, what is going to matter as having spiritual value, is going to come by means of the cross.

The Holy Spirit Brings Resurrection out of Us by Working the Death of Christ into Us

The “cross” is His cross, and He certainly bore it alone, but if we adhere to Him, if we are truly His disciples, then as we abide in Him, He—the crucified One—abides more and more in us, conforming us to Himself. As far as our soul is concerned, this is the work of the Holy Spirit—to bring resurrection out of us by working death into us.

HOW the Holy Spirit Works Death into Us

This does not mean some kind of psychologically unhealthy self-inflicted death. That only mutilates and strengthens the (false) self. The kind of death that is the work of the Holy Spirit is the kind that God brings about by providentially arranging our circumstances to bring us into self-knowledge and distrust and fear of ourselves. As this takes place, the Holy Spirit also works inwardly within our spirit to bring our broken humanity into communion with the crucified humanity of God, a humanity deified by its fidelity unto death and glorification in resurrection.

No Escape for N____; But Be Glad!

Poor N____. She just wants to do “Christian Education.” No matter. The self cannot remain intact if Christ will bear fruit among us. She is taken captive by Christ to do His will, and this is the way of it. All of our failures—like Peter’s—simply become part of the process. The goal of ministry is to bring the resurrection into fruition in the creation before the Lord’s coming again. “Rejoice,” Peter said, “inasmuch as you share in the sufferings of Christ … because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14).

The Cross Is the Pattern for Every Disciple and for the Whole Church

I have been speaking of the apostles’ coworkers. Yet everything I have said also applies to the elders in the local church, to every believer in Christ, and to the local church itself. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The cross is the form of all leadership in the church, all discipleship, and all service. The cross is the mold of the church. Only by dying with the death of Christ—to self—is the church able truly to “hold forth the word of Life” to the people who surround us.

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